Grateful Web Interview with Kathryn Colina

Article Contributed by gratefulweb | Published on Tuesday, January 7, 2020

On January 17th, Kathryn Colina will release her debut EP, Recovery, a collection of six songs recorded by the Nashville-based singer following a harrowing car accident, a flirtation with a prescription pill addiction and, ultimately a full recovery from a life-altering event.  The six songs were written by Colina and produced by Kevin Leach AKA Sonic Pilot (The Lumineers, ABC’s Nashville) and engineered by Nathan Dantzler (Niall Horan, Hey Violet.)  The six songs vary in style, some lean more Americana and some more pop-influenced.  Grateful Web had the chance to sit down with Colina just a few weeks ahead of the EP's release to get to know the new and promising artist.

GW: This is your debut EP, and you've titled it "Recovery." Can you tell us a little bit more about why you named it "Recovery" and how the theme of recovery plays throughout EP?

KC: Choosing the title “Recovery” for this EP was an easy decision. This EP pulled me out of my darkest year, a time when I thought I’d lost myself completely. During the early years of my life, I was a happy, confident kid with a deep love for music and a slightly naive view of the world; I always thought things would just fall into place if I stayed true to myself. A car accident in January 2017 drastically altered the plan I’d made for myself and, over a year, began to chip away at my self-confidence. 

Kathryn Colina: Recovery

Before the accident, I was studying audio engineering in Nashville with the plan of becoming a music producer. I remember the first months of school fondly as we delved into how sound waves enter our ears and send auditory signals to the brain. What I retained from those first months of schooling, albeit interesting, was in no way applicable to the real world of music production. Just as the courses started to progress into tangible information on how to manipulate consoles, mic up different instruments etc.. the car accident hit. Although my initial symptoms mainly consisted of neck and shoulder pain, that pain gradually worsened, eventually causing me to develop leg tremors– a problem so severe that I soon found myself in wheelchair. After meeting with countless doctors and undergoing a multitude of tests that turned out inconclusive, I felt increasingly hopeless about the possibility of recovering. I missed a lot of school, but even when I did make it to class, my brain was clouded by the high levels of pain medication I had been prescribed. I ended up graduating in December 2017 and somehow became valedictorian of my class, but there’s a difference between being able to cram the night before a test and actually being able to retain and apply that knowledge months down the road. I felt like a fraud and doubted that I would ever return to music production again.

In early 2018, I had a life-changing breakthrough when visiting a holistic doctor who was able to identify the source of my tremors. It took months of physical therapy, but I began to return to my body in a way that I never thought I would. Even though I was physically getting better, my mind was stuck in this mentality of fear and PTSD. I remember writing down in my journal that I needed to lean into my passion for music to somehow find a way to fit in this world.

I am so grateful for what I now call my “dark year” because it gave me the courage to take each day as a blessing and fully pursue something I love. It wasn’t until I met my producer in July 2018 that I began to understand that. This album saved me in more ways than I can count, and I am so grateful that I am now able to share these songs as a message of hope to anyone out there who may be going through a tough time. The songs on this EP range from the melancholy notes and lyrics depicting a long-distance relationship in “Space Between” to my upbeat and encouraging pop song “Stars.” 

Kathryn Colina

Although I didn’t pin down a genre or a single theme throughout the entire EP, each track takes the listener on a journey into the different emotions I’ve experienced throughout the process. “Take Care” is by far my favorite track. I wrote it as a message to anyone going through a tough time that “this too shall pass.” Recovery can come in many forms and my only hope for this EP is that I can reach someone who’s lost his or her own way and let them know I’ve been there, I get it, and I believe they too can land on their feet.

GW: What was it like working with Sonic Pilot as your producer? How did he help you shape the songs?

KC: My producer, Kevin Leach, AKA Sonic Pilot, was incredibly encouraging throughout the entire process. In the first weeks of brainstorming, we spent an entire day sifting through a list of 30 songs I had printed out for him, taking notes on what he heard in terms of production, how he thought we could shape the songs and what instruments were popping into his head. I remember playing “Stars” on acoustic guitar and Kevin saying, “This is going to be a pop song.” I was totally down to go that route but couldn’t visualize how we would get it there. Within minutes, he was playing the chords on his keyboard with this awesome synth that I hadn’t even considered. “Stars” would not be the song it is today without Kevin’s ear. 

Vocals were also really tricky for me. I hadn’t sung in over a year, and felt rusty and uncomfortable behind the mic. Kevin was so patient with me for all six tracks and even let me re-record vocals months after he had already spent time Melodyning and time-editing the original takes. I’d say, “I really think I can perform that line better” and he was already setting up the mic. It was not only generous of him, but ultimately helped us reach a better product in the end.

Kevin is a wildly talented musician himself and would spend hours playing guitar riffs or adding bass and drum fills to my songs. One of my fondest memories was the day we added piano to “Space Between.” The song is delicate, and we wanted minimal production to allow room for the lyrics to breathe. When he started playing the keys, I remember tearing up after realizing how perfectly he’d added to the sentiment of the song while matching the delicate guitar picking. Another thing we loved doing was putting a specific part of a song on repeat while he would freestyle on guitar. We’d sing the riff over the track until we landed on one we loved. Kev would practice it a couple times and track the final version.

Kathryn Colina

Finally, Kevin’s connection to Nashville musicians made this process so fun for me. There are parts in every song that I never would have heard if it weren’t for the session musicians Kevin brought in. From Wanda Vick Burchfield on mandolin and violin, to Lester Estelle II on drums, to Rasaan Barber on saxophone and SCi-FY on keys, Kevin’s connection to Nashville musicians really made this EP stand out in a way I never could have imagined.

GW: You wrote over 100 songs before settling on these seven. How did you choose which ones made the cut?

KC: I’d written about 150 songs by the time I started recording this EP. Narrowing that list down to 50 songs was pretty easy because I’d written at least 60 songs in high school that I no longer felt any attachment to. Don’t get me wrong, I love having those songs in my catalog just to reminisce and see my own personal growth and often return to those melodies when I want to write new songs, but lyrically, I’ve matured and find myself writing entirely new storylines on to what I now call my “baby songs.”  

There were other songs that didn’t make the cut because they’re still too disjointed– stories I may love or melodies I still catch myself humming, but songs that I want to revisit, revise, and approach in the future. A week before my first meeting with Kevin, I had about 50 songs in front of me. I only wanted to bring him 20 (which ended up being 30) because I didn’t want to waste his time, and I wanted to show him I had a vision for what this collection would be. Cutting those 30 songs down into a six-song EP would not have been possible without Kevin’s input. He sat and took notes as I played him the songs. We flipped through the lyric pages and put them into “yes”, “no” and “maybe” piles.

“Space Between” originally did not make the cut, but after the first two weeks of production, my mom was adamant that we add “Space Between.” I am really glad we listened to her. “Novocaine” was a song I insisted we add because it was so deeply personal to me. In contrast, “Take Care” was a song that I almost didn’t even bring in as an option, but Kevin heard it and immediately knew how he wanted to produce it. I am so grateful that he pushed that one through because it’s now become my favorite on the EP.

GW: How does your education in creative writing transfer into writing songs?  Do you recommend that other aspiring songwriters study creative writing? Does it help exercise the same muscle as songwriting?

Kathryn Colina

KC: I will be forever grateful for my education in creative writing and it definitely impacted the way I approach writing lyrics. It opened new worlds for me because I could enter into different lives and perspectives in the form of short stories, novels, poetry, and writing assignments. For me, creative writing exercises the same muscle as songwriting because I view lyrics as condensed stories. That being said, I don’t know if I could possibly recommend the path I’ve taken to another artist. Some of the best songwriters I know pull their inspiration from their own life experiences whereas I often try to take myself out of the equation. I find that I have more material if I pull inspiration from the world around me. However, contradicting myself entirely, I also find myself more connected to a song when I am able to pour my own experiences into the story. Everyone has a different journey when finding their own writing style and I think that is what makes co-writing so fun.

I was drawn to poetry at a young age and have journals filled with poems that I started writing when I was 7. My 8th grade English teacher, Gretel Deruiter, inspired me to delve into the works of Maya Angelou, Sylvia Plath, Robley Wilson and so many more. In ninth grade, I started attending the Lawrenceville School, a boarding school in New Jersey that largely shaped who I am today. We had classes on Saturday and, although it often felt rigorous and strict, my world expanded. By senior year, we were writing weekly papers on subjects ranging from the Romanovs to the Beat Generation. I was constantly out of my comfort zone. When my workload got too demanding, I escaped into my main form of procrastination– music. Instead of writing a paper on Herman Melville's “Bartleby the Scrivener,” I wrote a song entitled, “Hey Mr. Scrivener.” I received an F, only to then argue that my “prefer not to” attitude to the writing assignment directly correlated to my understanding of Melville’s message of passive resistance. Still got an F, lol.

In 2012, I chose Vanderbilt for many reasons but especially because I loved that it was located in the heart of Music City. I had the incredible opportunity to take songwriting classes at the Blair School of Music, led by the inspiring Deanna Walker. She opened my world to the Nashville Number System, verse/bridge song structures, the importance of knowing how to co-write, and the incredible power of peer feedback. To this day, whenever I am writing a song, I picture myself playing for a class like that, keeping in mind that sometimes the most descriptive and specific lyrics can become the most universal. 

While completing my creative writing major at Vanderbilt, I had the pleasure of taking Robert Barsky’s May semester in the Alps, which linked Switzerland's political neutrality with the safe haven it provided for radical creatives. In Geneva, we visited the United Nations, Red Cross, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization before hiking up Mont Blanc and tracing the footsteps of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. We examined the Romantic works of William Wordsworth and John Keats before heading to Zurich to explore the Avant-garde Dada art movement. I brought my guitar everywhere we went. I wrote a song on the top of Monte Verità and remember feeling as if my writing, in some magical way, translated into music more seamlessly than ever before. 

There is a point in which a song is trying too hard. Being so regimented in my academic life, I often have a hard time just getting to the point and saying what I mean in the most universal way. It all comes with practice, and it really helps to co-write with someone who is honest enough to say, “No one is going to get that metaphor.” It’s all a learning process, and I’m really grateful to be so in love with the journey.

GW: Your first single, "Novacaine," talks about "numbing the pain" and how hearing a certain voice would feel like "novacaine." Can you elaborate more about those feelings and how they inspired this song?

KC: “Novocaine” was inspired by the shocking loss of a Vanderbilt classmate in 2015 the summer before returning for our senior year. It was the first time in my life that I began to realize how short life is, how we need to hold our loved ones close, and just how necessary it is to remind the people around us how much they mean to us. Pat was the type of person to bring people together. He was magnetic, constantly spreading love to people of all backgrounds and making sure that everyone felt included. The last line of the chorus is:

Every night, I try to numb the pain. I swear to hear your voice today would feel like novocaine.”

In college, we were drinking and partying a lot and, even though we had a blast senior year, there were so many moments where it just didn’t feel complete. It was like no amount of partying would numb the pain of losing a friend. It didn’t seem fair that we were having fun and he wasn’t there to join in. We all felt like, just to hear his voice or have him with everyone again, the pain would dissolve instantly.

Kathryn Colina

GW: You were in a severe car accident that left you temporarily in a wheelchair and dependent on narcotic pain killers. How did you get yourself out of that situation to where you are now? How did that experience influence your songwriting?

KC: I absolutely hated taking pain killers. I was in so much pain that I was usually already crying by the time I took the pills, but the thought of needing them for the rest of my life often scared me more than the pain did.  By the end of 2017, I remember thinking I was dying. I spent my days in bed and if I did get out of bed, it was to have one more doctor tell me that they didn’t know exactly what was wrong.  

One of the last doctors I met was a neurosurgeon at the University of Pennsylvania who told me he didn’t know why my leg tremors were occurring, but that he knew how to fix it. He planned to open my skull and place a stent in my brain that would connect to a battery pack in my chest, supposedly putting an end to the tremors. He literally had a calendar out to schedule a date for my surgery when I once again asked what was causing my tremors. His response: “I’m a neurosurgeon; I specialize in fixing the problem. If you want to know the cause, you need to visit a neurologist.” I had already consulted with four neurologists by that point. I decided I liked my brain too much to let him cut without giving me that answer. Leaving his office in a wheelchair, despondent and in tears, I remember being so disappointed in myself, so conflicted by my choice to decline the only answer I’d been offered all year, and so angry at the world, feeling like I was heading home to deteriorate.

In early 2018, after we’d exhausted every option on the Western side of medicine, my mom found a woman who practices holistic medicine. Within 10 minutes of examining my tremors, my healer was able to find that my L3 vertebrae was so severely out of place that it was nearly touching my belly button. It only moved forward when I was standing because gravity naturally pulled it down when I was in a flat position, which is why the MRIs had missed it. It took months of physical therapy and I still visit for tuneups to this day, but I am 90% better. Getting off Percocet was easy for me once I was out of pain. It may be genetics or it may have been my fear of taking them that helped, but I was virtually able to quit cold turkey.

Being on so many medications definitely affected my ability to write. The entire year was like one long blur. Even though I can’t fully remember what the pain felt like, I have journal entries that show me where my mind was. I doubted every decision I made. I couldn’t tell if I was acting in certain ways because of the drugs or because of the pain. That doubt lived on within me long after I stopped taking the medications. Even though I was physically getting better, my mind was in this loop that was ugly and mean. I didn’t fully get out of that loop until I started to make music again. I would go on runs and listen to the early demos of my songs on repeat. I started to feel proud of myself again. I had always been a “glass half full” type of person before the accident and I was finally starting to see the world again that way. The whole experience impacted my songwriting because I can now tap into an emotion that was so foreign to me before I met the hopeless version of myself. I am now grateful for the ability to look someone in the eyes and say, “hey, I’ve so been there” and truly mean it. Now, when I write a sad song, it feels genuinely sad. When those rare happy songs come along, I know how to appreciate them that much more.

GW: Sonically, what are some of your main inspirations?  Lyrically, who influences you the most?

KC: Ahh, hard question. I grew up listening to the Indigo Girls, James Taylor, Nora Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, The Beatles, Dave Matthews Band, The Avett Brothers, Adele, Ani DiFranco and so many more. In college, I got really in The 1975, Glass Animals, Cage the Elephant, Dr. Dog, Ella Henderson, Jess Glynne, and HAIM. I have a hard time pinning myself down to a genre because I really love so many different artists. Lyrically, I have always loved Amy Winehouse, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Sia and am really into Sasha Sloan right now.

GW: How has being in Nashville influenced you as a musician and a songwriter?

KC: Nashville has some of the best musicians around the world, and having access to them has greatly enhanced my appreciation for how much time people dedicate to their craft. Going out to listen to other musicians perform live music inspires me constantly, and I’ve met countless musicians who I am now lucky enough to call friends. They have helped me understand the marketing and promotion side of the music business, and they are also the best people to talk to about the anxiety and fears that come along with putting yourself out there as a musician.

GW: What would you like listeners to take away from "Recovery?"

KC: As I gear up to share “Recovery” with the world, I hope that the strength and solace I discovered in making this EP might transfer onto my listeners, especially those who have endured a similar struggle. During that time when nobody could figure out what was causing my leg tremors, I had a lot of doctors tell me it was all in my head. Since then, I’ve talked to so many people who’ve dealt with similar health issues. I hope these songs can be some kind of light for them. I am so thrilled to share this labor of love, but I also have been so scared to open up about something so deeply personal to me. My only hope is that these songs can reach someone going through a similar time of misdiagnosis, self-doubt, drug dependency and fear and maybe offer a light at the end of the tunnel.

GW: What can we expect from Kathryn Colina in 2020? Will you tour in support of the EP?

KC: I am currently working with producer and mix engineer Jason Haag on my next collection of songs. They might be released as singles or might be combined into another EP. I am working on getting a band together. I’d love to go on tour someday, but right now, I am focusing on performing live in Nashville and getting over my crippling stage fright. I never used to get so nervous, but ever since my accident, I have lived with a lot of fear. Music has definitely helped, but I still haven’t really been able to get myself on stage. I plan on changing that soon.